Of all the idioms that have proliferated in the English language, “off the beaten path” is one of my all-time ironic favourites. Modern definitions and thesaurus entries make straightforward sense; not well-known or popular with many people, offbeat, novel, out of the ordinary, the secret, special or sacred places, the B-sides, the ones that no one else knows about. The term was not always about travelling or looking for something. There was a time when “off the beaten path” was a dis, when it negatively described a person as heterodoxical; as a heteroclite, a dissident, an iconoclast, a heretic.
The paradox applies to grape varieties with I can see the light clarity. In the late 19th century the Phylloxera pest epidemic nearly wiped out most of the vineyards in Europe and with no cure available, the best recourse was to graft Phylloxera-resistant American rootstock to more susceptible European vinifera vines. As a result, many an indigenous varietal proliferation slowly, over the course of 100 years, dropped off the face of the grape growing map, or if I may, the beaten path.
My WineAlign colleague John Szabo M.S. recently penned a column on Portugal in which he challenged semantic references using the confabulation “indigenous,” claiming that the term is often misused. Szabo contends that “most European grapes are more correctly termed endemic varieties, that is, belonging exclusively to or confined to a certain place, even if they are not originally from there. The true origins of most Vitis vinifera varieties is almost certainly somewhere in the Middle East.” Using scientific data and study to corroborate the theory, Portugal is put forth as the only European country that may comfortably lay claim to housing true indigenous grape varieties.
John admits that “the line is purely arbitrary,” so there certainly is some leeway when it comes to the glossology of ancient grape authenticity. Everyone knows that Cabernet Sauvignon is not indigenous, endemic or even domestic to Italy, or for that matter Canada, but is the more important question not one of how many years must pass before a grape can call itself home? How can we really pinpoint when a grape may have migrated from Mesopotamia to Lazio, to “a secondary domestication centre.” Do we need to be so precise in qualifying roots? How many millennium must pass before Chardonnay can consider itself a citizen and its children should no longer feel like unwanted, second-class adoptive wanderers? The answer is a very long time. Longer for grapes than for humans, that is for certain. In the case of Italy, has enough time passed to consider its native vines as indigenous?
The most famous and successful of domestic Italian grape varieties have trod a well-navigated, kept in the limelight track. The list includes Aglianico, Barbera, Corvino, Garganega, Glera, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Nebbiolo, Negroamaro, Nero d’Avola, Pecorino, Sangiovese, Trebbiano, Verdicchio and Vermentino. Italian acreage swells with their plantings. However, “off the beaten path” could actually be considered a metaphor for “authentic” and this is what winemakers and consumers (even if they need to be enlightened), really want. Perhaps people want experiences with real grapes and away from the “tourists.”
You can’t help but notice that modern winemakers with a wistful eye are casting reflexively into the past with a hunger for vinous resurrection. By grafting their pre-Phylloxera ancient vines onto healthy root stock they have turned the varietal compass on its head. As they have moved through their days with an open-mind to the panoply of grape interactions, they have beget the endemic revival.
Old is new again. Meet the awakening of the Italian grape vernacular: Albana, Albarossa, Bellone, Bombino Bianco, Canaiolo, Casavecchia, Catarratto, Carricante, Catarratto Comune, Cocociolla, Cortese, Grecanico, Groppello Gentile, Frappatto, Grignolino, Nerello Mascalese, Pallagrello, Passerina, Pelaverga and Ribolla Gialla. Every one of these ancient varieties are coming to a restaurant list near you.
Finally, I find the irony in the idea that for a winemaker or vine grower to step off the quotidian they need to plant, cultivate and make wine from grapes once considered the norm and the go to in their region. Today, the production from lesser, even totally unknown grape varieties, despite the zealous search for them by hipsters and geeks, is still considered a marginal pastime and a financial risk. The comeback continues to gain traction and with every passing vintage, the wines made from once Herculean grapes get better and better. Rusticity persists but with ever-increasing modern techniques, so is structure and balance. Endemic is the new vino da tavola and if I were Chianti Classico, Barbera d’Alba or Valpolicella I would be working even harder to keep hold of my market share.
Related – Wine around the boot in 40 days
On November 3, 2014, the Italian Trade Commission rolled out the red carpet at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall for the 19th annual tasting of Wines from Italy. At least 90 producers from 20 regions poured their wines, including the brightest and biggest stars; Amarone, Barbaresco, Barolo, Brunello, Chianti Classico, Sagrantino, Taurasi and Vino Nobile. The ICE-ITA assembly is the most formidable Italian tasting show in town. The impossibility of sampling everything on hand is more than evident so planning ahead is key. For 2014 I chose the lesser-known, the black sheep, the heretics. When all was said and done I felt like I had done “off the beaten path” some justice. Here are notes on 10 #OBP wines.
Alois Terre del Volturino Trebulanum 2011, Terre del Volturno IGT, Campania, Italia (Agent, $42, WineAlign)
From volcanic soils, this 100 per cent Casavecchia, a name which means “old house,” was all but forgotten after the Phylloxera plague. Legend has it that it was rediscovered inside a walled garden, according to farmers, among some ancient ruins in Pontelatone. Trebulanum, considered by Pliny to be one of the best Italian wines, grows 25 miles from Mout Vesuvius. Cassavecchia is a wine that came from vineyards on the hills surrounding the old town of Tremula Balliensis, an area that now incorporates the townships of Pontelatone, Castel di Sasso Liberi and Formicola. Re-planted (the cut and the setting of a small branches and the pro-vine, an ancient method that places the vine branch in the soil until it develops its own root) by Alois in 1992, Casavecchia is a troubled vine because of hermaphroditic pistulates and so it is light producing (less than 600 grams of fruit per plant). Massimo Alois says it took 10 years to get comfortable with the vines, mainly due to its extremely firm structure. The grapes produce loose batches of small berries of big colour (twice as much as Aglianico). Micro-oxygenation helps to release tension, modernize the rusticity and allow the intense acidity to play nice with the fruit. From a cool vintage, this Trebulanum is a phenom of an individual, of great strength and individual character. Ideal introduction to the future of its past. Tasted November 2014 Vini Alois @vinialois
Casale Del Giglio Bellone 2013, IGT Lazio, Italia (Agent)
In ancient Rome, it has been reported that Bellone was called “uva fantastica” (“fantastic grape”) by Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia. True? Maybe, maybe not. Linda Siddera tells me that Bellone hails out of the Trebbiano famliy tree from coastal vineyards thirty miles south of Rome. A child of sandy soils and sea breezes, the oldest local varietal found new life when planted by Casale Del Giglio 10 years ago. This Bellone exceeds many Trebbiano in body, viscous texture and finishing mineral natation. It may not be the most complex white on the boot but it will work beautifully with seafood and finish with the right kind of bitters. Tasted November 2014 @CasaleGiglio
Casale Del Giglio Cesanese 2012, IGT Lazio, Italia (Agent)
There are two sub-varieties of Cesanese: Comune (common), and d’Affile, from the eponymous village. Two years ago Wine Enthusiast’s Claudi Ricci said that “Cesanese is poised to become one of the hottest rediscovered red grapes in central Italy.” That is yet to happen but Casale Del Giglio’s take should raise an eyebrow or 10. Their vines grow in the Roman hills and although the variety has its own DOCg the territory (d’Afille) here is wrong so here it must be labeled IGT. The wine spent six months in stainless steel tank and another six in neutral oak. Freshness preserved, freshness is everything. If a comparison could be made it would be to Montepulciano but here the opaque purple Cesanese is tighter and writes its own chalky narrative from limestone maculated, alluvial soils. Red raspberry, spice and exotic perfume give much character, suppress rusticity and make for a really approachable red. Tasted November 2014 Wine World Importers
Castello Di Verduno Pelaverga Basadone 2013, Piemonte, Italia (Agent, $29.95)
Basadone can mean more than one thing in the local dialect of Verduno. It is a “king of wine’s” naughty little brother, a “wild poppy” and can mean “lady kisser.” The first is in reference to Barolo, Pelaverga and the 19th century vintner Carlo Alberto, king of Savoy. The second for its fruit-forward, low tannin and highly perfumed aromatics.The third because it was once considered an aphrodisiac. Winemaker Mario Andrion says that Pelaverga evolves on its own, that it is a gentle giant requiring no oak. Andrion uses traditional vinification methods, in stainless steel, to maintain purity. Though it dates to the 16th century, the current history of the grape goes back to 1974 when it was replanted using massal selection rootstock and then received its DOC status in 1995. This ’13 is firm, spicy, full of red fruit (notably cherry) with silky yet drying tannins. The wine is in heady balance and finishes with a brood of spice. Tasted November 2014 Castello di Verduno @3050imports @CatlandF
Civielle – Cantine Della Valtènesi E Della Lugana Elianto Groppello Garda Classico 2010, Lombardia, Italia (Agent, $21.50)
Groppello Gentile has been cultivated in Valtènesi since the 14th century. The name comes from “gróp”, meaning “knot” in the local language, because of its tight clusters. Though “upon the beaten path I kept on my blinders,” it is grapes like Groppello that take us out of our comfort zone. Grapes from the good life. This is a most robust and rustic organic take on a very old grape grown on the southwest shores of Lago di Garda at the edge of the Veneto. High-toned spices and floral notes are really unique, drawing no obvious comparisons. Fresh, tart and with great length, this would benefit from some settling time and then work well with selvaggina, notes Export Manager Orlando Bonomo. Tasted November 2014 Civielle @VinoAllegroBC
Fantinel Ribolla Gialla Brut NV, Friuli-Venzia Giulia, Italia (Agent)
Presented by Export Manager for North America at Gruppo Vinicolo Fantinel Patrick Sacha Cappellini, this Ribolla dates back to the middle ages and when used for Sparkling wine it exhibits a fuller sense of body, one that the everyday Prosecco just can’t seem to match. Made in the same Charmat Method, this is a Brut style though at (6 g/L) residual sugar it pushes the line. Soil, in this case “ponca,” the dark marly limestone of the region is key. This fizz juices rocks, literally (to a point) from friable calcium, resulting in bitters in mind of lemon and lime zest and the pith from which they are scraped. There is a delicate elegance and a creamy texture by way of battonage, with white flowers on that forceful nose, good verve in high acidity and a more than decent, dry finish. Tasted November 2014 @FantinelWinery @ProfileWineGrp
Azienda Agricola Gregorio de Gregorio Catarratto IGT Terre Siciliane 2013, Sicilia, Italia (Agent, 764837, $17.40)
Not only is Catarratto one of Sicily’s most planted variety (60 per cent), it is also one of Italy’s most employed. Reputation lends to parts of speech such as bulk juice, grape concentrate and blending but when vinified with ancient acumen and love, Cataratto is capable of revivalist contention. Here, from plantings in the late 1990’s, the fruit was extricated off vines 18 years of age. The Mediterranean composition, feel, tone and character of this unique white, while simple, straightforward and utilitarian, gives forth an ooze of balm and brine that Grillo just can’t match. So much sapidity and savour, like olives, capers and wild herbs muddled into one fine tapenade. Bring on the calamari. Tasted November 2014 Azienda Agricola Gregorio De Gregorio @ColioWinery
Planeta Etna 2013, DOC Sicilia, Italia (Agent, $27.99)
Valle Dell’Acate Vittoria Il Frappato 2013, DOC Sicilia, Italia (Agent, $28.99)
Presented by Francesco Ferreri, this unique red from Sicily was the eye-opener to finish in endemic style. The roots from this 100 per cent Frappato go back at least six generations to pre-Phylloxera times. All organic and replanted using massal selection, the Vittoria is one of only five in the region. The textural impression left by its calcaire, sandstone and clay strata soils is significant. Extremely berry-oriented, with strawberry and raspberry leading, along with a sour hint of pomegranate. Like Sicilian Gamay, with great personality, fresh, tight, bracing and very territorial. With more attention paid to the expressive Sicilian the new battle cry could become #FireFrappatoFire. Tasted November 2014 @VdaWinery @HalpernWine
Good to go!
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